New Documentary about Santa Barbara City Landmark St. Paul A.M.E. Church Now Available

by Anne Petersen

On May 31, 2020, Healing Justice and Juneteenth Santa Barbara issued a list of demands for action that included in part: “We demand protection and preservation of Black landmarks.” The demands identified specific buildings to be designated as historic resources including St. Paul A.M.E. Church at 502 Olive Street.

St. Paul A.M.E. Church, Santa Barbara. Image originally obtained from Laura K. Simmons for publication in African-Americans on the Central Coast: A Photo Essay (Black Gold Cooperative Library System, 1993).

There had been an African Methodist Episcopal church on the site of 502 Olive Street since 1906, when it was the only structure on the entire block, and Olive Street was known as Canal Street. It was built by the local African American congregation to serve as a house of worship for its members. By 1930, the Church, possibly a newer building constructed after the 1925 earthquake, had taken on the form we recognize today—a larger and more substantial building with an attached dwelling. In 1990 St. Paul A.M.E. Church was added to the City’s list of potential Historical Resources and assigned the note: “potential Landmark status.” A City landmark is the highest level of designation offered by the City. 

St. Paul A.M.E. Church as it appears on the 1930 Sanborn map.

Following the release of the demands from Healing Justice, the Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation and almost 700 other individuals and organizations sent letters to the City Historic Landmarks Commission requesting the immediate designation of St. Paul A.M.E. Church and the wider preservation of Black Landmarks. On August 11, City Council approved the Landmark Designation.

Producers/Curators Darrell M. McNeill and Sally Foxen-McNeill.

In February 2021, local producers/curators Darrell M. McNeill and Sally Foxen-McNeill screened their new project, Celebrating St. Paul A.M.E., as part of the Santa Barbara Black History Month Culture House, which they hosted online this year due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Darrell and Sally generously worked with SBTHP to help share the documentary widely with the public, and we know this project will be of interest to the local preservation community as well as the general public. The documentary features current Reverend Elbert Sherrod, former Reverend Jeff Clark, church elder Margaret Young, and former Santa Barbara resident and St. Paul church member Diane Hale, who discuss the church as an institution and its importance for the local Black community. You can watch the documentary below >>

We asked Darrell and Sally a few questions about their documentary and how we can keep up with their future projects:

What inspired you to choose St Paul A.M.E. Church as the subject for a documentary?

The idea came from Sally, a lifelong Santa Barbara resident. When we were mapping out programming for this year’s edition of Culture House, we had several concepts with regional Southern California and national/general interest, but nothing grounded here to Santa Barbara proper. As good as the programming was, it wasn’t as locally connected as other Black History Month programming being developed by our colleagues and supporters like SB Healing Justice, Juneteenth SB and several other culture forward Black groups we’ve aligned with when we first launched Santa Barbara Black History Month Culture House in 2020. Sally suggested St. Paul A.M.E. as it had been granted City Landmark status in the summer of 2020, in no small part due to the demands of these groups (and others) that it be recognized. St. Paul’s story still resonated with so many people within the Black community but felt very much insulated within and muted outside of it. So, since we had to pivot to online exclusive programming for the 2021 edition of the Culture House during the pandemic, a documentary about the church seemed like a natural fit. Sally actually attended the church many years ago and has friends who were connected to either the church or the pastors and they were all very happy to participate or make referrals.

What can you share about your future projects, and how can we stay informed about your work?

We are working on creating an online home for all of the content we’ve created for the 2021 Santa Barbara Black History Month Virtual Culture House, so the programming we did this February has an opportunity to reach a broader audience. Sally remains a staunch advocate for the Santa Barbara community and is continuing her efforts as a Council Member of the Neighborhood Advisory Council. She also serves on the Board of Directors of the Santa Barbara High School Alumni Association.

As for other projects, I’m currently doing research for a book I’m writing about the historic and cultural erasure of Black creators, performers and contributors to rock and roll music. I am also Director of Operations for the Black Rock Coalition. We had a program on deck at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York for 2020 that was scrubbed due to the pandemic but we’re getting it back on track for November 2021. I’m also editing a documentary I developed about contemporary Black comedy and creatives that was originally scheduled for the Virtual Culture House, but had to be cancelled due to technical issues. And, naturally, we hope to find another pop-up space for the Culture House in 2022.

Is there anything else you would like to share?  

We are both incredibly gratified so many Santa Barbarans have supported us over the last year-plus, especially this past February when none of us could be in the same room. We eagerly look forward to when we can all openly and freely congregate, dialogue, exchange and embrace, not just physically or intellectually, but spiritually. For those who want to keep tabs on us and what we’re doing, please reach out to us at bhmculturehouse@gmail.com.

SBTHP is grateful to Darrell M. McNeil and Sally Foxen-McNeill for sharing their work about this important new City landmark with a wide audience. We continue to support the related initiative to document and preserve the history of the African American community in Santa Barbara. On April 13, SBTHP spoke at City Council in support of a grant application to the California Office of Historic Preservation to create a Black/African American Historic Context Statement for the City of Santa Barbara, which was approved unanimously, and we will submit a letter of support along with the application.

Our local historic preservation program helps define who we are as a community. Historic buildings remind us of our moments of triumph, help us remember and grieve our tragedies, and help document the daily life of our diverse residents and the institutions they built. We will continue to support efforts to ensure that historic preservation work in our community is as inclusive as possible.

One thought on “New Documentary about Santa Barbara City Landmark St. Paul A.M.E. Church Now Available”

  1. Kudos to filmmakers Darrell and Sally Foxen McNeill for this comprehensive history of St Paul AME Church. It is a pillar and centerpiece of African American history in this community.

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